Why does Congress get so much vacation?

Unless Nancy Pelosi says otherwise, Congress will break for its annual recess on Aug. 3 and return Sept. 4. Lawmakers already enjoyed weeklong breaks this year in February and May, plus a two-week hiatus in April. Why does Congress get so much vacation?

To meet with constituents. Members of Congress don’t like to think of themselves as on vacation, which is why they call their recesses “work breaks” or “home-district periods” rather than “time off.” Depending on how safe their seat is—and the proximity of the next election—members will probably spend some portion of the recess attending town halls, meeting with community leaders, or visiting local haunts like barbershops to take their district’s temperature. But they’re free to do as they please—like stay in Washington, D.C., travel abroad with congressional delegations, or work on a tan.

Leaders of both parties meet at the beginning of each year to set a work schedule, which Congress must then approve. Members typically take a week or two for major holidays—Easter, July 4, Memorial Day—plus the month of August. Leaders also set a target date for adjournment—this year, they’re shooting for Oct. 30—but Congress often works into December. (The target adjournment date is earlier during election years to allow time for campaigning.) Members then have time off until the next session begins on Jan. 3. This year, Congress is scheduled to be in session just 137 days.

That may seem like a lot of vacation, but it’s nothing compared with what Congress used to get. Throughout the 19th century, being a representative or senator was a part-time job—six months in Washington, six months back home, with legislative sessions beginning in December and ending in May. (Congress wanted to avoid the summer heat in the District.) These abbreviated work schedules were the result, in large part, of how difficult it was to travel cross-country. Even by rail, it took more than a week to get from California to Washington, D.C. Plus, Congress simply had less to do than it does now.

This way of life changed in the mid-20th century. In 1933, Congress passed the 20th Amendment, stipulating that sessions would begin in January instead of in December. As a result, sessions extended into the summer. (The experience was made bearable by the advent of air conditioning in the Capitol around the same time.) In the 1950s, the introduction of jet planes made it possible for members of Congress to travel to D.C. and back within a few hours. Instead of commuting twice a year, members started returning home every weekend. On the one hand, this new mobility shortened the amount of time spent in Washington, as Congress adopted the now-traditional three-day work week, with Mondays and Fridays considered travel days. On the other hand, it allowed sessions to run longer, especially under the leadership of President Johnson, who oversaw ambitious legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act, all signed into law in 1964. Members soon started agitating for time off in August to escape the heat and spend time with their families, which led to the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act in 1970.

Congressional leaders can fiddle with the calendar after setting it if they want, but they rarely do. In 2004, Congress held hearings in August in response to the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. In 2008, Democrats held pro forma sessions in which a single senator would gavel in and gavel out every three days in order to keep the Senate officially in session, to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments. A proposal in 2007 to extend the congressional work week from three days to five met with resistance, but this year’s schedule does include 11 five-day weeks and 18 four-day weeks.

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Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office and James A. Thurber of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.